Monday, May 18, 2015

Plain Talk on Prayer (John 16:23b-28)

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“Prayer is perhaps the most highly regarded but the least employed of all the spiritual disciplines.”[1] Those are the words of New Testament scholar Robert Mounce, but if we are honest with ourselves, we must confess that we identify with the truthfulness of that statement. Our hearts resonate with C. S. Lewis, who writes near the end of his book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, “by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has. … Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.” But we do admit, as does Lewis, that, “If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be delight.”[2]

If our prayer lives would graduate from duty to delight, then we must acknowledge before Him what Paul calls “our weakness” in Romans 8:26 – namely, that “we do not know how to pray as we should.” We must come to Jesus and ask Him, as a disciple did in Luke 11, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And if we do that, we will find that Jesus has done this very thing. He has taught us in plain language what prayer is, how it is to be done, and what it accomplishes. His teaching on prayer can be found throughout the Gospels and applied throughout the New Testament letters, but here in the verses before us today, we have a concentrated dose of the remedy to our ailments in prayer.

Jesus tells His disciples in verse 25, “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language.” The expression, “figurative language,” is perhaps not the best translation of the Greek word here in the original text. The word refers to “hidden, obscure speech which stands in need of interpretation.”[3] We can certainly see that His words have been received in this way by the disciples, because of their frequent confusion and misunderstanding of what He has been telling them. In verse 12, He said that He had many more things to tell them, but they could not bear them at the present time. But Jesus says that “an hour is coming,” when He will no longer speak to them in ways that they find difficult to understand. Rather, He will speak to them “plainly.” He speaks of the difference between how His words were grasped then and there by His disciples, and how they would be better comprehended once the Holy Spirit had come. The Spirit, whom Jesus said in verse 13 would guide them into all the truth, came to indwell the followers of Jesus at Pentecost, and He gave them insight into the mysteries of all that Christ had proclaimed. The sayings which formerly they had perceived as obscure and enigmatic would become plain and clear to them as the Spirit illuminated their hearts to understand His truth. The hour that was yet to come for those disciples has come for us. The Holy Spirit indwells all who call upon the name of Jesus in faith, and we therefore can receive His teachings plainly, including this instruction on prayer.

Jesus says that He will “tell [them] plainly of the Father.” We must understand that Jesus does not teach in miscellaneous subjects. The singular subject of all His teaching is the person of God, whom He reveals to us in His life and His words. This is true even when we come to His teaching on prayer. This is ultimately “theology” in the strict sense of the word – truth about God. It is not teaching about a religious activity, but a relational reality that is ours in Christ. It is not about a thing to do, but a Person to whom we have access because of what Christ has done for us in His life, His death, and His resurrection.

So, as we draw near to God, we will be greatly helped if we give a careful ear to Jesus’ plain talk on prayer. Here we find the basis, the method, and the effectiveness of all true prayer set forth in plain and clear language for us.

I.  The basis of all true prayer is Christ’s completed work of redemption (v28).

The Bible, being the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, is completely true and trustworthy, and contains no contradictions. Now, you may have heard it said that the Bible is full of contradictions. That gets said a lot. When someone makes that claim, however, we simply should ask them for an example. Most people cannot name a single contradiction; they are merely repeating something they have heard from others. We do encounter on occasion two statements that appear to be contradictions, but this is only because we have not considered all of the relevant information. It is better to call these statements a “paradox” rather than a contradiction. A paradox is something that appears to be a contradiction, but still may have a valid explanation.

One of the most profound paradoxes in Scripture comes in Exodus 34:6-7, when God reveals a truth about His nature. He says there to Moses, that He is “the Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” The paradox is this: how can God be One who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin, and yet still not leave the guilty unpunished? The Bible teaches that we are all sinners, by nature and by choice (Rom 3:10-18, 23), and as a result of our sin, we are separated from God and He does not hear us when we pray (Isa 59:2). Yet the Bible also makes us profound promises about prayer, worship, and fellowship with God, including those we read in our text here in John 16. How can we be cut off from God’s presence, and yet still enter into His presence, as we do in prayer? This is a paradox, is it not?

Friends, the answer to this, and many of the paradoxes we encounter in the Bible is Jesus Christ. He is the key to unlocking the paradox of this sin-forgiving, sin-punishing God who does not hear our prayers because of our sins, but welcomes sinners to come and pray. In verse 28, Jesus gives a succinct summary of why this is so. He says, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.” This encapsulates His divine origins (He came from the Father), His incarnation (He came into the world), His death and resurrection (He is leaving the world), and His ascension (He is going to the Father).

Christ speaks of the entirety of His redemptive mission with complete certainty. These are the things that He has done and that He would do. Because He has done them, a way has been made for sinners to be forgiven and reconciled to God, and to have the relationship with Him that makes access in salvation, worship, and prayer possible. In His life, He fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf demonstrating His perfect sinlessness and perfect righteousness. In His death, He took our sins upon Himself, so that in Him they could receive their just penalty as He died in our place. In His resurrection, He has defeated sin and death for all who trust in Him. In His ascension, He has been seated at the right hand of the Father, indicating that His mission is complete, and He ever lives to intercede for us and for our salvation.

So, the paradox is solved in Him. As Paul says in Romans 3:26, God has shown Himself to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” He is just in that sin has been dealt with severely under the outpouring of divine wrath. He is the justifier in that Christ’s life and death make it possible for sinners to be forgiven and declared righteous in Him. And it is on this basis that all true prayer is possible. We are received in God’s presence as we pray, not on the merits of who we are and what we have done, but on the merits of who Christ is and what He has done for us. Apart from faith in Him, there is no access to God. Jesus said that “no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6), and this truth applies to salvation, to worship, and to prayer. As an illustration of this glorious reality, when Jesus died, the great veil in the Jerusalem temple that barred entrance into the holy of holies was torn in two from top to bottom. The holy of holies was understood to be the representation of God’s presence on earth, and that veil was a constant reminder that sinful people could not approach the Lord. Jesus’ death removes the barrier because He has made a way for sinners to be made righteous through faith in Him. The temple veil is torn, and access to God is granted for those who approach Him on the basis of Christ’s completed work of redemption. 

This, then, is the basis of all true prayer. If we have trusted in Him as our Lord and Savior, we need not fear that we will be unwelcomed before God. It was for this reason that He came, that He lived, that He died and rose again, and that He has ascended. He has provided you access through Himself as a result of His completed work of redemption.

From the basis of all true prayer, we move on to consider the method of all true prayer.

II. The method of all true prayer is to ask the Father in the name of Jesus.

I have often said that learning to pray is like learning to play golf, only less frustrating. What I mean is that one does not learn to play golf by reading books on golf, but by picking up the club and swinging it. And one learns to pray by praying. We can be helped by reading great books on prayer and learning from others, but the starting point is, in the immortal words of Nike commercials, to “just do it.” Now, along the way as we are growing in our prayer lives, we will come across good corrective suggestions about adding balance to our prayer lives. At first, prayer usually takes the form of just asking God for the things that are on our hearts. We need to grow in our understanding of prayer to realize that prayer encompasses more than just asking God for stuff. It encompasses praise, and confession, and thanksgiving too. It involves more than asking, but not less. There must be asking! The central thrust of all the Bible’s teachings on prayer is that we come before God asking Him to meet our needs. In Philippians 4, Paul says that prayer rightly includes rejoicing and giving thanks, but that it must also include us letting our requests be made known to God. James says we have not because we ask not (Jas 4:2).

No less than three times in these verses, Jesus essentially commands His followers to ASK! In verse 23, He says “if you ask ….” In verse 24, He says, “ask,” and in verse 26, He says, “you will ask.” We may fear that God will be offended if we come to Him asking all the time, but it seems more likely that He may take offense if we do not come asking. If we never ask God for anything, we are essentially declaring that we don’t need Him, and are able to take care of ourselves on our own. But we are not! We do need Him to provide for us and for others who are on our hearts as we pray. Many of the things that we desire and need can only be supplied from His hand, and so we must humble ourselves to the point of perpetually asking! And here in verse 24, the verb tense of the Greek word for ask is a present imperative. That means that it is a command to keep on asking. Never stop asking!

But Jesus also says that we must ask in His name. This is the great distinction between the prayer of the Christian and the prayers of all others. Up to this point, Jesus said that His disciples had “asked for nothing in [His] name” (v24). They had surely been men of prayer, but they had not ever come before God in the name of Jesus. To come in the name of Jesus is to come, as we have said previously, on the merits of who Christ is and what He has done for us in His work of redemption. It is to come as if we were Christ Himself, asking for what Christ Himself would ask. When I was a youth pastor, there was this little bracelet that the kids used to wear that said “WWJD” (What would Jesus do?). Well, when we pray in Jesus’ name, the question we need to ask ourselves is WWJP, “What would Jesus pray?” What would He ask if He were in this situation?

When we come before God, praying in the name of Jesus, we are doing what C. S. Lewis called “dressing up as Christ.”[4] In so doing, we are able to do what Jesus commands us to do here in this text. Note well that Jesus says we are to ask, ask in His name, and ask the Father. Because of the name of Jesus, His followers are able to approach the mightiest throne of all – the throne of the God of the universe – and Hebrews says that we can even come boldly before the throne of grace because of Christ. Now, in other texts, Jesus also speaks about prayers being directed to Him, so it is not inappropriate for Christians to pray to Jesus, and we may also say that it is not inappropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit. But we must not miss this point. Jesus says that we have direct access to God the Father because of Him!

Notice in verse 26, He says, “You will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request the Father on your behalf.” Jesus does not want us to see God as a reluctant deity who is disinclined to hearken unto our prayers until or unless Jesus intervenes with special pleading. As Mounce says, “The worn-out and unbiblical concept of an angry God whose continuing displeasure is only partially alleviated by a gentle Jesus has made prayer difficult and unpleasant for those who still live under the misconception.”[5] Certainly, the Bible does speak of Jesus as our advocate and intercessor (1 Jn 2:1; Heb 7:25, et al.), but this has more to do with our standing, not our hearing, before God. He alone makes it possible for us to enter in, but coming in by Him, we are at liberty to make our requests directly to the Father.

After all, Jesus says, “the Father Himself loves you.” Friends, this is a promise from the lips of the Lord Jesus! God the Father loves you! He is pleased with you because you are positioned before Him in Christ. He receives you as He receives His only begotten Son. He delights to fellowship with you in prayer. Jesus says He loves you because “you have loved Me and believed that I came forth from the Father.” Does this mean that you have somehow earned the favor of God’s love because of something you have done? No, it means that the favor of His love has been earned for you by Christ. On the basis of what He has done, you have been drawn by His grace to love Him and believe on Him, and enter into this relationship of love with the Father.

Someone will undoubtedly object and say, “But doesn’t God love all people?” Indeed He does. But His own, who have been redeemed and reconciled to Him through the blood of Christ are uniquely and especially loved in a qualitatively different way. We are probably familiar with the fact that there are multiple Greek words which are translated as “love” in the New Testament, and we have probably heard it said that the highest form of love is that which is expressed by the Greek word agape. This is the word that is used only of God’s unconditional love for all of humanity. But it is not accurate to say that this form of love is “higher” than that expressed by another word, phileo. This word means “brotherly love,” “familial love,” or “friendly love.” Sometimes, the words are used as synonyms, and sometimes there are shades of difference. But the differences are of quality, not quantity. They are different kinds of love. And here Jesus says that God has loved those who believe in Him and love Him with this “friendly, familial kind of love.” It could be said here that we can approach the Father directly in prayer because He considers us to be friends, or better yet, family. And such we are! By faith in Christ, we have been adopted as His sons and daughters! I think our confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message expresses this as well as anyone ever has: “God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men.” There is a significant difference between being “fatherly” and being “Father in truth.”[6] And if you have become His child through faith in Christ, He is your Father in truth. You are loved, and welcomed to come boldly into His presence to ask Him – Jesus says, to ask Him for “anything” in verse 23 – in the name of Jesus Christ. Peter says that we can cast all of our anxiety upon the Lord, because “He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).

So the method of all true prayer is this – to ask the Father for anything in the name of Jesus. And now we move on to consider finally the effectiveness of all true prayer.

III. The effectiveness of all true prayer is that the Father answers.

A couple of decades ago, I guess, there was this song that was quite popular which said, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayer.” Friends, we need to be very clear about one thing: there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer for a Christian. If we come to the Father and ask in the name of Jesus, there will be an answer. Now, mind you, sometimes the answer is “No.” Bill Hybels, in his excellent book, Too Busy Not to Pray, shares four ways that God answers the prayers of His people. Sometimes, if the request is wrong, God says “No.” If the timing is wrong, God may say, “Slow.” If you are in the wrong, God’s answer could be, “Grow.” But if the request is right, the timing is right, and you are in the right, God says, “Go.”[7] The request is granted. But friends, if you are a child of God, and you come into His presence in the name of Jesus asking for the concerns of your heart, God the Father’s response to you will never be, “So?” He has promised to always answer.

Jesus says here in verse 23, “If you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.” Again in verse 24, “Ask, and you will receive.” Now, certainly there have been many who have misunderstood and misapplied these promises to mean what we call “name it and claim it.” This is the foundation of the so-called “prosperity gospel” which says that if you have enough faith, then God will always give you whatever you ask for.
So, what does Jesus mean, if He does not mean that I can ask God for millions of dollars, or whatever it may be, and believe that I will receive it? We simply have to keep our noses buried in the Book of God. Jesus goes on to say in verse 24, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.” God will not withhold anything from you that will ultimately serve to fulfill your joy in Him. He will gladly give you all things that further concrete Him and Him alone as the anchor of your true joy. That may entail Him not giving you some things, or taking some things away from you, so that your joy does not consist in those things.

God is always drawing our focus away from the gifts and onto the Giver, who is Himself. Because He loves us, He will freely give to us all things that are in keeping with His perfect love for us. That means that if we ask for something and do not receive it, the timing could not be right and we must persist in asking. Or it could mean that our hearts are not right, and the gift would be spiritually toxic to us. Or it could mean that we are simply asking for something that is contrary to His will. But this should not stop us from asking, for only as we persistently ask will we grow, and understand His timing and His will. Some of the most loving answers God will ever give to our prayers is His divine “No.” But what He will give us, freely and gladly, are those expressions of His perfect love which anchor our joy deeply in Himself. Why did God answer your prayer in this way or that way? It is because He loves you, and He wants to be the center of your everlasting joy. He loves you too much to allow you to draw even a moment’s satisfaction from anything or anyone other than Himself. He answers so that your joy may be made full.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Your Father in Heaven delights to give you good gifts. He gives you the things that are most in keeping with His perfect love for you, and those things which will fulfill your joy in Him. And those are the very best gifts we can receive.

Our hymn of commitment today expresses it so well: “Oh what peace we often forfeit! Oh, what needless pain we bear! All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” Jesus is here promising us that, on the basis of what He has done for us in His life, His death, His resurrection and ascension, that we can come boldly to the Father and ASK Him for anything in His name, and we have the assurance that He will answer us when we pray that way. He couldn’t make it any plainer than He did. The Holy Spirit helps us by illuminating our hearts to understand this plain talk on prayer. Now, it is to us to come, in the name of Jesus, and ASK!

If you are here today and you are not a Christian, we are so glad you are here. What we are saying here today is not yet true for you, because you have not come into the personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus that makes this kind of true prayer possible. But though it is not yet true for you, it can be in mere moments. If you will come to Christ and recognize that He has lived for you, and died for you, and rose from you, and entrust yourself to Him as your Lord and Savior, the One who grants you access to the Father, then you can be born again, and live under the Fatherhood of God and find your ultimate and everlasting joy in Him.


[1] Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10;Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 594.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1992), 113-114.
[3] Mounce, 594.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 188.
[5] Mounce, 594-595.
[6] http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfm2000.asp. Accessed May 14, 2015.
[7] Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 88. 

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